By Mario Koran
In the 1960s, while studying under the famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner at Harvard University, Robert Gable and his brother designed the first electronic monitoring system. They hoped it would be used as a support system.
“It was supposed to be a pro-social tool,” Gable said in an interview, “a way for offenders and agencies to remain in contact and offer positive support.”
But with the development of newer forms of the technology, particularly Global Positioning System tracking, Gable has become uneasy. Tracking technology, he wrote in a 2009 report, has instead been used “almost exclusively as an information system to document rule violations.”
By 2008, at least 39 states required or authorized the use of electronic monitoring to track sex offenders, according to the nonprofit National Conference of State Legislatures. The group’s report said at least 11 states, including Wisconsin, require lifetime monitoring of some offenders.
In Wisconsin, GPS tracking is currently used to monitor more than 600 individuals, mostly sex offenders. Some of them say the technology is unreliable, resulting in their being returned to jail even in situations where they have not broken the rules.
The state Department of Corrections said it is unaware of problems with the technology. But it acknowledged that it does not track how often alerts result in offenders being jailed, and has never audited the performance of its GPS monitoring system, in use since 2007.
Gable estimates that 250,000 people are being electronically monitored in the United States, about one in 10 by GPS technology. More widely used is radio frequency monitoring, which tethers individuals to a base station inside their homes, effectively a form of house arrest. If they travel outside the perimeter without approval, authorities are notified.
And GPS vendors are seeking to significantly expand the use of GPS technology, by pitching their wares to authorities to monitor illegal immigrants, suspected gang members and even truant students.
How effective is GPS tracking? That is open to debate.
Bill Bales, principal investigator on a 2010 study funded by the National Institute of Justice, found that electronic monitoring — both radio frequency and GPS units were examined — could decrease recidivism by 31 percent.
“GPS can be a very effective tool,” he said in an interview.
But Gable thinks many agencies are using GPS devices as a means of “control and punishment,” rather than as a tool to help keep offenders on track.
“GPS tracking is an example of public fear that has been augmented by politicians who want to be tough on crime,” Gable said. “It’s a wayward technology that has become warped into a punishment routine.”
Understanding the limitationsGeorge Drake, president of Correct Tech LLC, an Albuquerque-based corrections technology consulting company, said agencies need to be mindful of the technology’s limitations.
In particular, he argues that correctional officers should exercise careful discretion regarding whether and when GPS violations lead to reincarceration.
“It should not be a blanket policy,” Drake said. “A one-time ‘no-GPS’ event would be an inappropriate reason to send someone to jail. If it happens again and again, that might be something to look into.”
Although he is a proponent of GPS tracking, Drake said agencies should be aware of its limitations and set clear objectives. “I think a review on at least a yearly basis would be appropriate to make sure an agency is making progress toward those objectives,” he said.
Peggy Conway, editor of the Journal of Offender Monitoring, said correctional officers need to know “how the devices work and where they don’t work. They are the ones who need to distinguish between nuisance alerts — which waste police officers’ time and resources — and the alerts that need to be investigated.”
DOC spokeswoman Jackie Guthrie said GPS monitoring “is just one tool and is not intended to be a stand-alone. Its intention is to work in concert with other supervisory strategies.” She said the agency does check to make sure GPS equipment and systems are working properly.
Longstanding problemsIn Wisconsin, GPS monitoring equipment and services are provided by Behavioral Interventions, or BI, a Colorado-based company. According to its website, the company has approximately 900 contracts with federal, state and local agencies.
Drake said that GPS technology, while improved, is not good at tracking offenders in high-rise buildings, subways, basements or large commercial structures such as shopping malls.
“To be used best, it needs to be used with a clear view of the sky, no clouds, wide open spaces,” Drake said. “We as people spend 90 percent of our time indoors, so there’s an immediate problem.”
BI’s website warns that the GPS signals sent by the devices can be lost due to rain or fog, in deep canyons or dense vegetation, near large or tall buildings, and “when the offender is riding in a car or other enclosed means of transportation.”
In 2010, BI suffered a nationwide electronic monitoring server crash, leaving authorities in 49 states unaware of the movements of offenders who were being tracked by GPS and other technology. In Wisconsin, police and correctional officers reportedly held about 140 sex offenders in jail throughout the state until the GPS tracking system was restored.
In 2007, a legislative study committee in Arizona measured the effectiveness of using GPS technology to track offenders. It found that the 140 offenders monitored that year experienced a total of 35,601 false alerts, due to problems such as low batteries or signals lost in dead zones.
The study group found 463 confirmed violations, meaning that false alerts outnumbered proven infractions by a 77-1 margin.
And a 2011 study of GPS technology by Sam Houston State University in Texas found a significant number of false alerts, triggered by equipment failures.
“GPS technology is far more limited than anticipated and should be viewed as a tool rather than depended upon as a control mechanism,” said one of the authors, Gaylene Armstrong, in a news release.
Uncertain costIn 2007, nine months after he signed a bill mandating lifetime GPS tracking for certain sex offenders, then-Gov. Jim Doyle proposed limiting tracking only to offenders on probation or parole, citing budgetary concerns. State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, warned that this would undercut “our ability to track these monsters.” In the end, Doyle, a Democrat, agreed to move forward with expanded tracking of these sex offenders.
- Hey Mr. Suder, not everyone on the sex offender registry is a monster! It's thinking like this why people like you should not be allowed to be in politics, it's discrimination!
In fiscal year 2011-12, the state paid BI $4.2 million for services including GPS monitoring units, home monitoring units and electronic alcohol-detection units, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The DOC was unable to say how much was specifically spent on GPS.
A provision in state law requires that offenders on GPS monitoring pay a fee for the devices. But the amount is based on the offender’s ability to pay, and even offenders who are not absolved of this responsibility are often delinquent. According to the Fiscal Bureau, less than $100,000 was collected during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012.
- Forcing someone to pay a fee for something they do not want but are forced to wear is extortion.
“I could have predicted that from the get-go,” said Bies, the corrections committee chairman. “Most of the people that you are involving (with GPS) are barely self-sufficient as it is.”